When given anonymity online, some people tend to leave aggressive, insulting and vitriolic comments.
Psychology has struggled to understand why and explanation was given – researchers have found that anonymity can reveal personality traits that face-to-face interactions may hide.
This can be a good and a bad thing.
Some use that anonymity to show kindness, they self-disclose on anonymous parts of the web and offer support without showing their faces or giving out their real names, but they are often overlooked in the midst of the attention that “trolls” and “cyberbullies” receive.
People mostly focus on the negative side of anonymity.
Years back comment sections on websites and blogs were touted as the darkest places on the Internet, but that has changed as more and more news organizations choose to restrict or ban anonymous commenting.
However, few bastions of anonymous speech remained and one of the most famous and most notorious notorious is /pol/ bord on 4chan.
Now, many scientists and researchers have turned their focus to this online community – scientific studies are appearing about /pol/.
Some are trying to prove that this image board was an important factor in the rise of the „extremist right“, others that it helped Trump get elected and most recent one tries to suggest that hateful online comments on /pol/ could be tied with mass shootings.
In a study, which is conveniently titled „Violence beggeting violence: An examination of extremist content on deep Web social networks“, two researchers claim that /pol/ often act as a self-reinforcing community of users encouraging each other to violence.
As the researchers themselves noted, the goal of their work was to investigate the role social media plays in encouraging violent behaviour in those with extremist leanings, particularly white males targeting certain religious and ethnic groups in pursuit of what is commonly understood as a white nationalist agenda.
This is an abstract of their paper.
„Several incidents of mass violence in 2019 were preceded by manifestoes posted to deep Web social media sites by their perpetrators. These sites, most notably 4chan and 8chan, are buried in the deep Web, away from the neutralizing effects of broad public discourse. Many of the posts to these sites reference earlier extremist incidents, and indeed the incidents themselves mimic aspects of previous attacks. Building on previous research, this paper examines these deep Web social media sites. Through an analysis of traffic and posts, we confirm that these sites often act as a self-reinforcing community of users encouraging each other to violence, and we map a statistically significant rise in ”post volume” on these sites immediately following terrorist attacks“.
However, when one looks at the results of their work, all they were able to prove is that whenever there is a terror attack somewhere, discussion on 4chan /pol/ spikes – there is no smoking gun, no indisputable evidence or proof that this board really causes violence.
For example, they examined the discussion five days before and after the Christchurch attack.
This is what they found:
“The first emergency call went out at 1:43pm local time (0043GMT) on 15 March 2019. Observing hourly data leading up to and following the attack for the /pol/ and /a/ boards, a significant spike in traffic can be observed almost immediately following the first emergency call on /pol/. A comparable effect cannot be observed on /a/. (Anime discussion board that was used as a control variable).”
This doesn’t have to mean anything as mainstream media also have more viewers in the wake of horrible events such as terrorist attacks.
Their conclusion that 4chan users are encouraging each other to violence can seem far fetched, especially as some earlier studies have shown that, while anonymous comments were more likely to be contrarian and extreme than non-anonymous ones, they were also far less likely to change a subject’s opinion on an ethical issue. One must ask themselves, If hateful comments can hardly change people‘s opinions, do they really have to power to cause real life violence.
On the other side, some scientists recently suggested a contagion effect, similar to a “copycat” effect, might have been in play in mass shootings. According to that theory, exposure to destructive behavior could trigger a spiral of violence.
One is certain, definitive conclusion about causality of human behaviour is hard to find.
You can read the paper about the link of 4chan and violence HERE